This Friday, February 11, 4-7 pm will be the annual East Canton Rotary Chili Cook Off – for which this blog is, in part, a shameless plug! Come on out – for $7 you can enjoy all the chili, fixin’s and dessert you can eat, see who the judges think is the best mild and spicy chili and add your voice to the People’s Choice selection (Vote for Terry!). There will even be carry out options available. It’s always a fun event and still a value – Cheaper than McDonalds! But – a word or two about chili apart from the cook off.
Chili is a funny thing. It isn’t thought of as a soup or stew though it plainly could be. On it’s second or third day of leftover status most chili could be thought of as a casserole though it isn’t that either. Chili is often served over pasta or has pasta cooked into it but it isn’t a pasta dish. Chili is uniquely its own thing and we recognize it in almost any context, far beyond the traditional bowl. We put chili on hot dogs and wouldn’t be fooled by a wiener topped with sloppy joe. We love us a chili–cheeseburger and wouldn’t be fooled by a hamburger topped with BBQ.
And yet – what is chili? It can have meat and no beans or beans and no meat and we would still recognize it. Among hardcore chili enthusiasts one of the great debates is whether or not to add cumin. The non-cumin camp generally thinks you might as well add strawberry ice-cream. I can only say for myself that I like chili both ways – light on the cumin strikes me as better than heavy – but cumin or not I still recognize it as chili.
The old cattle drive trail chili was composed of equal parts beef, beef tallow (those longhorns were pretty lean and needed the extra tallow) and whatever herbs could be found on the trail – which means it might have sage, wild onions, and who knows what else. The ‘Chili Queens’ of the markets in San Antonio of days now long gone, each had their secret ingredient(s) that made their version different from and – each would insist – better than all the others.
One might say that cayenne is the essential ingredient that transforms a pot of beans, ground beef and tomato juice into chili. Or – one might not! Or one might argue that pork sausage is the right meat for chili – or venison. I have had bear/blueberry chili. It was good. And it was definitely chili. White bean and chicken chili also apparently counts. On different years at the cook off I have seen a chili that featured mushrooms win the people’s choice award. Some like their chili thin and some add mazteca just to make it thicker – or crackers – or macaroni -or cheese – don’t start the old argument of cheese verses sour cream!
The categories at the cook off are only mild and spicy and spice level is always a key thought about chili which ranges from absolutely bland to burn out your nose hairs hot. But, truth to tell, some chili’s are sweet or savory or tangy or smoky. Some are heavier on black pepper than cayenne. I add Jalapenos and habaneros to the base of cayenne but the variety of peppers from which to choose is staggering. I have had chili with hot dogs and maple syrup added. I have had chili with corn or potatoes or rice. Chili can be onion heavy, onion light, onion absent, cooked with onion or topped with raw onion.
My daughter was never fond of chili in her years at home but at college told me she had discovered she liked chili. What she had discovered was Cincinnati Chili which has cinnamon and chocolate added. I’m going to be honest – not a particular fan. But it is chili.
Some chili is very tomato-forward. But I can tell the difference between that and tomato soup. Some chili has chunks of meat rather than ground. But the difference in meat preparation does not make it hard to tell chili from beef stew. I saute’ the meat for my chili in lime juice. I have seen the same thing done with cherry juice. But it remains inalterably – chili.
At the end of the day the best we can say in terms of defining chili is that we know it when we see it – or perhaps taste it.
I sometimes feel the same way about Christianity. While I cannot be fooled by substitutes or alternatives, I can recognize the worship of Christ in almost endless variations. Praise God.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church